Could pre-figurative politics provide a way forward for the left?

“Like the movie Cats, the last season of Game of Thrones and many other things that happened in 2019, the British election was expected by many on the Left to be bad, but turned out to be so much worse. The Conservatives won 365 of the 650 seats in parliament – a majority so big that the Tories will remain the largest party even if a significant number of their MPs are suspended for sexual misconduct or thrown out for disagreeing with the leader, as has happened before.

This was a resounding victory for a party whose policies have caused over 130,000 preventable deaths since 2012 in England alone; been so hostile to disabled people and migrants that some have been driven to suicide; and failed to deliver even on their own dangerously limited environmental promises. Meanwhile, Labour had a manifesto packed with economic policies that the majority of the British public supported; a leader who broke with elitist traditions; and election adverts that stood out for their honesty.

This was an abysmal election that showed very clearly what obstacles socialists come up against when they threaten elite power, from media bias to political disenfranchisement to structural racism. The way forward must be to learn from this and continue organising outside of government. If there is one glimmer of hope for the Left it’s the increased understanding of the fact that politics isn’t a service you can hire someone else to do on your behalf – we have to do it ourselves. The most promising strand of this thinking is prefigurative politics; that is, the politics of organising in the here-and-now in a way that reflects the society we want to see in the future.”

Read the full article on Open Democracy:

Why Labour didn’t win, and what to do next



How did this happen?

In our tens of thousands, we canvassed. We got out the vote. We researched, debated, explained, listened. But despite this colossal wave of support, Labour had the worst result since 1935. How could this be?

This kind of question isn’t new to the left but is one of the most debated of the last century. As an academic in Political Science, and an having just co-written a book on revolution and social change, the ideas I teach and think about in my daily work are very useful for understanding what happened in this election.

First of all there’s the media bias. Unlike what liberals would have us believe, a competitive market of profit-driven newspapers, TV stations and social media platforms doesn’t lead to a ‘free market’ of ideas. Instead we have a media landscape owned and controlled by billionaires whose main mission is to secure and increase their own wealth. (In political theory this is usually termed the ‘third dimension of power’, theorised by Steven Lukes; building on Gramsci’s famous ideas of cultural hegemony and false consciousness.)

In Britain only two papers – the Sun and Daily Mail – account for over half of all newspapers sold every day. Three media conglomerates (News UK, DMG Media and Reach Plc) account for over four-fifths of the newspaper market. Hence the overwhelming negative bias against Corbyn in the press, as evidenced in this study by researchers at Loughborough University.

British TV station ownership is just as billionaire-owned as the press – and you already know about Facebook thanks to the Cambridge Analytica scandal. The impact of the disinformation spread by these media channels became very clear when I was out canvassing and people on the doorstep complained that – for example – Labour was going to introduce a ‘garden tax’ charged by the square metre size of your garden (I have no idea where that one came from) or that the photo of the boy with suspected pneumonia left on the hospital floor was staged by Labour activists (a story printed by Metro among others).

When it comes to the BBC, it’s of course owned by the state and not by billionaires. The fact that the state provides free health services, welfare payments and policing makes it look like the state is a charitable organisation standing up for justice, when in fact it was created to serve the interests of the elite, which has become painfully clear since Corbyn became leader. The BBC has been instrumental in propagating the smear that Labour is an antisemitic party (rather than an antiracist party in an antisemitic society as it really is). The political editor of BBC news, Laura Kuenssberg, has repeatedly acted as an uncritical mouthpiece for the Conservatives. For example she spread a completely fabricated story about a Labour supporter punching a Conservative aide in the face without checking the facts first, and announced on the day before election day that ‘the postal votes that are in are looking pretty grim for Labour’, which is in breach of electoral law. Other examples are far too many to list here.

The BBC isn’t the only state-owned institution to be biased against Corbyn – perhaps you remember that a senior serving general of the British army stated back in 2015 that the British Army could stage a military coup if Corbyn became prime minister. Earlier this year it emerged that British soldiers were using a picture of Corbyn’s face as targets in their shooting range.

This state bias against a self-declared socialist is not surprising when we think for a moment about what kind of institution the state is. The state is generally defined in the political science literature as the group that ‘successfully claims the monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force within a given territory’, as defined by Max Weber. Inherently a violent organisation, the state structurally advantages elites over the general population. It forbids the hungry from stealing food from corporations but doesn’t forbid corporations from stealing wealth from its workers; it protects corporate profits but doesn’t protect our environment from those corporations’ CO2 emissions; it deems ‘healthy’ those people who are able to work and be exploited by corporations, but doesn’t deem ‘unhealthy’ those stressful and monotonous working conditions that drive people to the edge.

Radical leftist thought has long told us that the state can only generate inequality. If the state were intended to facilitate an equal and humane society, then why is it so big that tens of millions of people are lumped into the same political unit, making each individual person’s share in decision-making miniscule? Why is violence or the threat of violence the main mechanism of government? Why is the decision-making system set up so that decisions made by a small elite? The state by its very design favours hierarchy and oppression.

The state and socialism are therefore necessarily in opposition. Although many Marxists have sought to seize control of the state, this has only ever been as a temporary measure. As Engels put it: ‘As soon as there is no longer any social class to be held in subjection […] nothing more remains to be repressed, and a special repressive force, a state, is no longer necessary.’ As we have seen in the past year, it doesn’t matter how skilled a politician you are, or how much popular support you have – socialism is a difficult sell to people whose careers are spent serving the repressive arm of the bourgeoisie.

I won’t even go into the more technical aspects of the electoral system that rig it against the left, like gerrymandering, because that would assume that representative democracy is an inherently fair or well-functioning model, which it isn’t. Representative democracy, as any Politics undergraduate will know, was developed by elitists like John Stuart Mill and Joseph Schumpeter who openly wanted to limit the influence of the general public. Since directly participatory forms of democracy would give the general population too much power, they argued, it would be best to use a representative system where MPs make decisions on the general public’s behalf. That way elites could be in charge, while at the same time it would look like the masses had a say. This, by the way, is not some tin foil hat conspiracy theory, it’s openly argued in those literatures.

In rejecting representative democracy I’m not saying that isolated forms of direct participation, like referendums, by themselves would improve the situation. The Brexit referendum is ample evidence of that. The problem is that we lack the broader social and formal arrangements that encourage people to get actively involved and that make involvement meaningful. While an isolated referendum won’t develop most voters into well-informed and engaged political decision-makers, an education system that teaches critical thinking, creativity and initiative-taking probably would. As would a lifetime of experience if participatory decision-making was to become a regular event. In order to build a society of capable decision-makers, in other words, we must develop recurring participatory decision-making practices, which the nation-state couldn’t provide, but which workers’ co-ops, housing co-ops, community interest companies, participatory budgeting and citizens’ assemblies could.

The Brexit referendum, as a rare occurrence of direct public participation, shows us how reliant British people today are on information provided by political elites. That NHS cuts were necessary because of the £350 million a week the UK allegedly sends to the EU; or that Eastern European immigration has led to lay-offs and wage decreases for British workers, were lies peddled by Nigel Farage, David Cameron and Boris Johnson, and were repeated to me on the doorstep while I was out canvassing. Scientifically verified information has little standing when it’s coming from the mouth of a Labour Party canvasser drowning in a sea of disinformation and verifiably misleading claims in Tory campaign adverts.

In today’s Britain most people are too tired, overworked and stressed to dedicate a lot of time to politics and political discussion. That’s why McDonnell argued for the working week to be reduced to four days with no reduction in pay. Which of course gave billionaires all the more reason to put their weight against Labour.

The gridlock between socialist policies on the one hand and the system of representative democracy, capitalism, xenophobia and the nation-state on the other, is clear. Corbyn’s electoral project seemed for a long time to have potential, but the Liberal ‘democratic’ system won out. When we understand those forces that any social democrat has to go up against, it becomes clear that electoral victory is almost impossible.

There are of course some countries where welfare states have been successfully established in the past – my native country Sweden being one example. But the Nordic welfare states, like Britain’s NHS, were established in the wake of the Russian Revolution as soldiers returned home from the wars and European elites were terrified of a workers’ uprising at home. Today we don’t have such a threat, so we need to find other ways of creating the justice we need.

So what should we do?

I’m not saying we should all drop electoral politics and let the Tories have free reign. But elections can only be a very small part of our strategy. To have a serious chance at turning Britain into a just and humane society, we need to build those capacities and practices that we want to see ourselves. Create organisations where everyone can participate in decision-making together – or at least support and become members of ones that already exist, whether co-ops or community interest companies or some other form. (If you’re in London then the Common House, which I’m involved in running, is a nice hub to find an organisation to join if you don’t know where to start.) Join the union and organise with your co-workers for shorter working hours and better pay. Create new forms of education – which on a smaller scale might take the form of teach-ins and summer schools, and on a larger scale new schools or colleges build on egalitarian principles. Pool our resources to share them with those who are experiencing times of hardship, through organising community meals, collective childcare, car sharing. Save our money in Rootstock or Triodos rather than big profit-driven corporate banks. Revive and support alternative media outlets like Indymedia, Novara and Open Democracy. Stop buying energy from the Big Six and develop a solar panel project for you neighbourhood together with community energy organisations like Repowering London instead.

While it might have been less effort to just elect somebody else to sort all of this out, it’s turned out not to be working that way. Everyone can’t do every single one of these things of course, but unless we start divvying up these tasks between us and getting on with it, we are stuck on a rainy shitty island with Boris Johnson as our dad.

We don’t have to be related to be a family


“When you don’t have a nuclear family and you live outside of that tradition, knowing the purpose of the family and who gets to be a member is a little complicated.”

“A lot of my friends and co-workers are ‘starting families’—by which they mean producing offspring and registering the details of the person with whom they officially have sex with the government.

I’m 35 years old, which is the kind of age when your parents, or even random people at dinner parties, start asking when you’re going to ‘start a family’ too. Thankfully I rarely get asked that question because I don’t really speak to my parents, never go to dinner parties, and most people don’t realise I’m 35 because—as a visibly genderqueer person who likes colourful clothing—they always seem to assume that I’m a child.

But actually I’ve already started a family myself, just a different kind of family to the ones we’re normally used to. While ‘proper’ families spend their weekends at IKEA or hiking in national parks, I’m in the club dancing to Whitney Houston with mine, or in an anarchist meeting or a collective cleaning day for the local social centre.”

Read the full article on Open Democracy:

Structures are constructed everywhere, including inside ourselves


“So far this year, our social media feeds have been peppered with calls to be vegan for the month of Veganuary, use less plastic, produce less waste, and make countless other lifestyle changes to create a better world. A plastic bag takes 1,000 years to degrade in landfill declares one video on my facebook feed, so we should use a fabric bag instead.

However, many activists and woke folks are suspicious of calls to action that focus on individual choices. They warn that consumerist activism, personal environmentalism and lifestyle politics are distractions from genuine social justice work. Instead, they tell us to focus on structural change. ‘Lifestylist’ solutions are a waste of time because they fail to address the structural causes of social problems; what’s also problematic is that they’re not accessible to everyone since they require investments of our own time and money.

In some ways these critics are right, but in others they’re wrong. The criticism that our own personal behaviours or consumption patterns are irrelevant to broader social structures is mistaken.”

Read the full article on Open Democracy:

Is there really a crisis around identity politics on the left?


“[R]radical queerness and anti-racism are not forms of identity politics; and class struggle is not free from questions of identity. All forms of social life are already coded by class, race, gender and disability, so there are no forms of politics or struggle that exist outside these structures of social power. The claim that intersectional critiques distract from the ‘real struggle’ or are divisive is based on a fundamental misunderstanding of both intersectionality and socialism: the question is not whether the two can be integrated, but how. […]

By the same token, the claim that non-binary queerness is solely an expression of individual freedom is based on a liberal misunderstanding. For me, being queer is not just a private preference, it’s about how I behave, know, talk, organise, work and live. Being queer is a necessary response to structural oppression; a vehicle to confront and resist the ways in which capitalism, racism and patriarchy seep into the most intimate aspects of my life. Queerness is not freedom from social interference, it’s the opposite—an active and responsible engagement with the structures of social power.”

Read the full article on Open Democracy:

Why Britons have to embrace tactical voting in the upcoming election


“As the British Prime Minister has called an election for 8th June in order to strengthen her mandate for a hard Brexit (or perhaps to replace the 20-odd Tory MPs who are reportedly charged with electoral fraud and who would likely face suspension), British liberals and lefties are agonising over which non-Tory option to vote for.

Voting out the Tories will save many lives and mitigate much suffering, so it is an important thing to do. We should not, however, deceive ourselves to believe that there are good alternatives to the Tories when there are only less bad ones. In this election, tactical voting is all there is. If we want a society that is better than merely ‘less bad’, we must stop relying on the nation-state and instead organise together in our communities.”

Read the full article on Open Democracy.


British people agree with Corbyn more than they realise

The most common argument against Jeremy Corbyn is that people wouldn’t vote for him jeremy-corbyn_0in a general election. And indeed, recent polls show that he is miles behind Theresa May in popularity. This autumn, polls that have asked who would make the best Prime Minister have shown that well over half of respondents prefer Theresa May, while only ten to twenty percent of respondents prefer Jeremy Corbyn over all other party leaders. (This does not translate directly into voting intentions, however, since many of those who dislike Jeremy Corbyn would still vote for Labour in an election; the Labour party is only a few percentage points behind the Conservatives in most polls.)

But why is Corbyn so unpopular? Do people really disagree with his policies?

Several different polls in recent months have attempted to clarify which elements of Corbynite politics the British people don’t like. And the results are startling. It turns out that British people agree with much more of Corbyn’s politics than they disagree. For example, a YouGov poll showed that 67% of British people want government welfare cuts to be reduced or stopped. An ICM poll showed that 47% of people want to renationalise the railways (while only 25% don’t). Older polls from last year show that over 90% of people in the country are in favour of rent control on private housing, 60% of people want the minimum wage to be raised to a living wage, half want to cut tuition fees, and 59% are worried about the NHS and see it as ‘very important’ that healthcare remains free. All of these views are directly aligned with Corbyn’s, and quite distant from the Conservative Party’s.

The issues on which people tend to disagree with Corbyn revolve around three things. The first of these is defence, and the second is immigration. According to the recent ICM poll, 50% of Britons disagree with Corbyn’s policy to stop Trident, 59% want to stay in NATO, and 57% are opposed to cuts in defence spending. Meanwhile, 58% want Britain to stop taking refugees from Syria, and the Brexit referendum result clearly indicates that immigration is a source of apprehension among the population – regardless of whether this apprehension stems from misleading media discourse or any real material threat.

That so many people would let their overall inclination towards Corbyn be so coloured by these two factors is rather surprising given that the issues of defence and immigration affect British voters far less than the issues on which they agree with Corbyn. The UK’s defence budget is only at around 2 percent of GDP. Aside from budget expenditure, even somebody who disagrees with academics who argue that offensive military strategies are likely to lessen rather than increase our security, could hardly claim that the threat of military invasion from abroad is the main challenge that Britons face in their lives. Education, health care, elderly care, housing – these are the issues that concern us the most, and they are the ones where most people are politically aligned with Corbyn.

Immigration is a similarly suspicious concern given that immigrants bring a net economic benefit to the UK, EU immigration does not have a lowering effect on wages in low-paid sectors in the UK, and only around 300,000 more people enter the UK each year than leave it – that is, less than five percent of the country’s population. Logically, even someone who is staunchly opposed to immigration should rate the availability of free healthcare, affordable housing, decent education etc as more important based on the influence of those issues on their life. And indeed, the polls cited above would indicate that they do.

The third issue on which the majority disagrees with Corbyn is benefit payments. As the recent ICM poll shows, 55% want the cap on benefit payments to stay, while Corbyn wants to get rid of it. The benefit cap is an upper limit on the amount of benefit payments any household can receive. The current cap has just this month been reduced to £23,000 per year in London and £20,000 in the rest of the country. This includes an entire household’s payments to cover living costs, housing, transport, food, children’s extracurricular activities, etc.

That a majority of people are opposed to generous benefit payments, yet as we saw above are strongly in favour of more funding for the NHS and a re-nationalisation of the railways, indicates that it is not government spending as such that they are opposed to, but government spending in cash directly to households. Indeed, British Social Attitudes polls show that almost half of respondents want to cut benefit spending for unemployed people, and 61% believe that ‘a working-age couple without children who are struggling to make ends meet should look after themselves, rather than the government topping up their wages’.

That Britons let the question of benefit payments influence their voting preferences is more justified than letting the questions of defence and immigration influence them, at least in terms of government spending. Benefit payments are at around 10-13% of Britain’s GDP – over five times as much as defence spending. Around two thirds of British families receive some kind of benefit payment, so it is understandable that the issue feels important to voters.

Overall, however, the data indicates that most Britons are far more closely aligned with Corbyn’s politics than Theresa May’s. On Trident, immigration and cash benefit payments they tend to agree with the Tories, but when it comes to the NHS, higher education, railways and other public services, rent control and minimum wages, their views most closely match Corbyn’s according to surveys. Of course, these surveys have asked a limited number of questions and have not been able to cover all potential points of agreement or disagreement with Corbyn or other politicians. We have no choice but to assume that the issues these polls have asked about are the issues that Britons most care about. But even so – given that the NHS, education, other welfare services, private housing rents and low minimum wages logically influence our lives much more than defence and immigration, it is strikingly suspicious that Corbyn’s popularity is not higher than May’s. That Britons feel strongly about cash benefit payments is more understandable, but it is doubtful whether this would be a good enough reason for the average British voter to favour the Tories over Corbyn’s Labour would they realise what Corbyn’s policies actually are.

The challenge Corbyn faces is not primarily one of convincing the British population to agree with him on key policies, since most of them already do. The challenge, rather, is to communicate the substantial content of his manifesto for Labour, as well as to counteract the hyped media focus on defence and immigration as supposedly pivotal political issues.